When the Maryland Terrapins and Iowa Hawkeyes meet in Manhattan on Tuesday for the NIT semi-finals, there'll be a somewhat interesting twist for the tournament: two teams happy to be there. Neither fanbase is exactly happy that they missed out on the NCAAs and find themselves in the Little Dance, but as both teams grow and improve with each games, they're happy to keep on playing meaningful basketball.
To give an inside perspective on the Terps' opponent, we turned to SBN's fantastic and inimitable Iowa blog, Black Heart Gold Pants. BHGP's RossWB was kind enough to sit down with us and exchange questions on the matchup; make sure to head over there and check out our responses to his own questions, but first read on for his take on the Hawkeyes' shooting woes (and recent improvement), why you should know Roy Devyn Marble's name, and what he and other Iowans think of Maryland's addition to the Big Ten.
TT: Iowa, much like Maryland, seems to have had things click late in the year, winning 10 of their last 13 after a rough start to the Big Ten conference slate. Has anything in particular clicked as a catalyst for this run?
BHGP: Well, one thing that helped was the just the schedule itself. As you said, Iowa had a rough start to the Big Ten conference schedule, but they were also playing Indiana, Michigan, Michigan State, and Ohio State then. They had a much better run at the end of the conference schedule... but they were playing Nebraska, Purdue, Northwestern, and Penn State. I mean, that helps. Iowa struggled to get over the hump against the best in the league this year -- they were only 1-5 against the teams that finished in the top-5 in the Big Ten this year.
That said, they're also just plain playing better as a team right now than they were in January. A big reason for that is the play of Roy Devyn Marble, Iowa's leading scorer. He struggled at times this year, partly due to a foot injury, partly due to a lack of confidence, and partly due to a little bad luck, but he's been on fire the last month or so. He's averaging around 25 ppg in the NIT, even though he's also been forced to become Iowa's primary ballhandler after an injury to regular starting PG, Mike Gesell. But he's just been simply fantastic the last 4-6 weeks, carrying Iowa as far as they've gone. Aside from Marble, it's been a rotating cast of sidekicks. Aaron White is Iowa's second-leading scorer and leading rebounder, but he had a very quiet game against Virginia in the NIT quarterfinals -- and Iowa still won going away. Freshman center Adam Woodbury has had a rocky season, but he was brilliant in that game -- 10 points, 8 rebounds, 2 assists, and solid defense. Iowa's also been able to get solid performances off the bench from guys like Eric May (the only senior on the team and probably its best defender, too), Gabe Olaseni (a center who adds a lot of energy and athleticism, especially on defense), and Zach McCabe (a big whose touch from outside has been solid in the NIT).
TT: This is perhaps related, but if Iowa's had any issue this year, it seems like it's simply making shots, 10th in the Big Ten in eFG% and dead last in 3-pt%. But that's improved over the last six games, with an eFG% over that spell of 51%, a 4-percentage-point increase on the season. Is there any significant difference in what they're doing, or are shots just starting to fall? Are you convinced that this recent improvement is here to stay?
BHGP: Yeah, Iowa is not a particularly good-shooting team -- or at least they weren't for most of this season. They've been shooting the ball much better of late. I would say it's more of the latter than the former -- I don't think they're doing anything dramatically different. Shots are just actually falling a bit more frequently now. I think their previous shooting woes were perhaps a little worse than they could/should have been -- they had good looks on a lot of them, but the shots would just rim out or fail to go down. Now those shots are actually going down. I'm not particularly convinced this improvement is here to stay this year -- but it doesn't have to stay for too much longer, either, you know? Just two more games.
The one thing Iowa probably does need to do is get back to their formula for most of the year: driving to the hoop, crashing the offensive glass, and getting to the foul line. Virginia adamantly refused to allow Iowa to do that and made them shoot a ton of jumpers; fortunately, they fell for Iowa in that game. I don't know that I would want to rely on that for two more games. White and Melsahn Basabe, Iowa's other starting forward, thrive on tip-ins, put-back dunks, and lots of other easy shots. Iowa also thrives on getting to the free throw line, which Virginia was able to prevent them from doing (until late, when Virginia was fouling to try and extend the game).
TT: The Hawkeyes are 24-12 in Fran McCaffery's third year, having improved each season since he took the helm after that dry spell in the late 2000s. What's your verdict on how this year's gone? And because now we have a vested interest in the strength of the conference, how optimistic is Iowa's future under McCaffery?
BHGP: I'm very happy with how this season has gone, frankly. I would have liked an NCAA Tournament berth, of course -- especially since Iowa hasn't made the Big Dance since 2006 -- but if they were going to be in the NIT, then I was hopeful that they could at least put together a good run in the tournament. So far, they've done just that. It's been a lot of fun to watch the development of this Iowa team, both from the depths they were at a few years ago to even where they were at the start of the season -- they've come a long way and it's been really great to see.
As far as the future of this team... it's bright. Iowa added a top-20 recruiting class last year and only one player on this team (Eric May) is a senior. So they return a lot of the talent from this team, plus add Jarred Uthoff, a transfer from Wisconsin, and Peter Jok, a former top recruit who should add some scoring pop. If this team can avoid any sophomore slumps and handle the pressure that comes with being expected to do good things (and win games), they should be pretty formidable over the next few years at least.
TT: So, this Roy Devyn Marble character seems pretty good at basketball. He's definitely Iowa's most important player, and has been playing his best of late, lighting up the NIT. What makes him so good, and what should Maryland fans know about his game?
BHGP: Marble has a good all-around game: strong at a lot of things, but perhaps not excellent at anything. He's a good ball-handler and the offense in general has looked very good since he took over primary point guard duties (regular starter Mike Gesell has been nursing a foot injury for the last few weeks): he's a good distributor and good at initiating the offense. He's not the most consistent outside shooter, but when he's on from out there, he's deadly. He's molded himself into a very good free throw shooter and he typically does a good job of driving, drawing contact, and getting to the line. Of late, he's shown a knack for converting tough jumpers. When his game is on, he's usually able to rack up points fairly quietly and effortlessly -- he's scored around 25 ppg in every NIT game, but it's rare that he's been pushing or dominating the ball too much. He's been shooting around 50% from the field in this recent hot streak, too.
TT: Maryland's headed to the Big Ten, and the vast majority of fans are excited by the move. How do Iowans feel about the conference's newest addition?
BHGP: A crushing wave of indifference? I don't mean that as a slight on Maryland (honest!), but I think Iowa fans are skeptical about the addition of Maryland (and Rutgers, for that matter) because we just don't have much history with them or many perceived similarities with the Terps. When the Big Ten added Penn State and Nebraska, those moves made sense. Iowa had some history with both teams (and proximity with Nebraska) and both teams just seemed like they "fit" within the Big Ten. But Maryland... on the surface, you guys don't seem to fit. We're brats, you're crabcakes. We're rolling fields of corn, you're on the ocean. We're B1G, you're ACC. Maybe it won't seem so jarring once you're actually here or after we've played a few games, but for now it just seems like a weird fit.
TT: Last one: who are you picking for Tuesday? Both teams are peaking and playing their best basketball of the year. Think Iowa pulls it out and makes it to the finals, or will Maryland be a tougher test?
BHGP: Maryland will be a stiff test, but I love the way Iowa's playing right now, so I'm not going to pick against them here. Give me Iowa 72, Maryland 67, with Marble making some key shots late to carry the way for Iowa.